Music of The Baroque Period
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Music of Baroque Period
Derived from the Portuguese barroco, or “oddly shaped pearl,” the term “baroque” has been widely used since the nineteenth century to describe the period in Western European art music from about 1600 to 1750. Comparing some of music history’s greatest masterpieces to a misshapen pearl might seem strange to us today, but to the nineteenth century critics who applied the term, the music of Bach and Handel’s era sounded overly ornamented and exaggerated. Having long since shed its derogatory connotations, “baroque” is now simply a convenient catch-all for one of the richest and most diverse periods in music history. In addition to producing the earliest European music familiar to most of us, including Pachelbel’s Canon and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, the Baroque era greatly expanded our horizons. The acceptance of Copernicus's 16th Century theory that the planet earth did not revolve around earth made the universe a much larger place,Many of the well known personalities from the first part of the Baroque period hail from Italy, including Monteverdi, Corelli and Vivaldi. (By the mid- eighteenth century, our focus shifts to the German composers Bach and Handel.) Many of the forms identified with Baroque music originated in Italy, including the cantata, concerto, sonata, oratorio, and opera. Although Italy played a vital role in the development of these genres, new concepts of what it meant to be a nation increased the imperative of a “national style.” Differences between nations are often audible in music from the period, not only in the way music was composed, but also in conventions of performance; particularly obvious was the contrast between Italy and France. While certain countries may seem to claim a larger piece of our experience of Baroque music today, however, every nation played a role. As musicians and composers travelled all over Europe and heard each other’s music, the new conventions they encountered made subtle impressions on them. Some of the best known composers from the period include the following:
What is the philosophy of Baroque music?
Although a single philosophy cannot describe 150 years of music from all over Europe, several concepts are important in the Baroque period.
in music as a potent tool of communication
One of the major philosophical currents in Baroque music comes from the Renaissance interest in ideas from ancient Greece and Rome. The Greeks and Romans believed that music was a powerful tool of communication and could arouse any emotion in its listeners. As a result of the revival of these ideas, composers became increasingly aware of music’s potential power, and cultivated the belief that their own compositions could have similar effects if they correctly emulated ancient music. As French humanist scholar Artus Thomas described a performance in the late sixteenth century,
I have ofttimes heard it said of Sieur Claudin Le Jeune (who has, without wishing to slight anyone, far surpassed the musicians of ages past in his understanding of these matters) that he had sung an air (which he had composed in parts)…and that when this air was rehearsed at a private concert it caused a gentleman there to put hand to arms and begin swearing out loud, so that it seemed impossible to prevent him from attacking someone: whereupon Claudin began singing another air…which rendered the gentleman as calm as before. This has been confirmed to me since by several who were there. Such is the power and force of melody, rhythm and harmony over the mind.
In 1605, the Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi actually defined a “first” and “second” practice: in the first, harmony and counterpoint took precedence over the text; in the second, the need to express the meaning of the words surpassed any other concern. In the baroque, it is the spirit of the second practice—using the power of music to communicate—that came to dominate the era.
realities of patronage
Any discussion of a Baroque composer’s artistic philosophy should be tempered, at least slightly, by the reality of their lives. In modern times, artists frequently earn a living producing exactly the kind of art they are moved to create. Accordingly, we often think of the artist—and the degree of his or her artistic inspiration—as the starting point for a work of art. Throughout much of the Baroque era, however, composers only earned a living writing music if they were fortunate enough to be on the payroll of a political or religious institution. The musical needs of that institution, therefore, dictated the music the composer produced. Bach wrote the number of cantatas he did, for example, not necessarily because he found the form inspirational, but because of the liturgical demands of the Leipzig church that employed him. When viewed in this light, Baroque music can provide a fascinating window into history.
What are the
characteristics of Baroque music?
The new interest in music’s dramatic and rhetorical possibilities gave rise to a wealth of new sound ideals in the Baroque period.
Contrast as a dramatic element Contrast is an important ingredient in the drama of a Baroque composition. The differences between loud and soft, solo and ensemble (as in the concerto), different instruments and timbres all play an important role in many Baroque compositions. Composers also began to be more precise about instrumentation, often specifying the instruments on which a piece should be played instead of allowing the performer to choose. Brilliant instruments like the trumpet and violin also grew in popularity.
Monody and the advent of the basso continuo In previous musical eras, a piece of music tended to consist of a single melody, perhaps with an improvised accompaniment, or several melodies played simultaneously. Not until the Baroque period did the concept of “melody” and “harmony” truly begin to be articulated. As part of the effort to imitate ancient music, composers started focusing less on the complicated polyphony that dominated the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and more on a single voice with a simplified accompaniment, or monody. If music was a form of rhetoric, as the writings of the Greeks and Romans indicate, a powerful orator is necessary—and who better for the job than a vocal soloist? The new merger between the expression of feeling and the solo singer come through loud and clear in Monteverdi’s preface to the Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda from his Eighth Book of Madrigals (1638), in which he writes: “It has seemed to me that the chief passions or affections of our mind are three in number, namely anger, equanimity and humility. The best philosophers agree, and the very nature of our voice, with its high, low and middle ranges, would indicate as much.” The earliest operas are an excellent illustration of this new aesthetic.
Along with the emphasis on a single melody and bass line came the practice of basso continuo, a method of musical notation in which the melody and bass line are written out and the harmonic filler indicated in a type of shorthand. As the Italian musician Agostino Agazzari explained in 1607:
Since the true
style of expressing the words has at last been found, namely, by reproducing
their sense in the best manner possible, which succeeds best with a single
voice (or no more than a few), as in the modern airs by various able men, and
as is the constant practice at Rome in concerted music, I say that it is not
necessary to make a score… A Bass, with its signs for the harmonies, is enough.
But if some one were to tell me that, for playing the old works, full of fugue
and counterpoints, a Bass is not enough, my answer is that vocal works of this
kind are no longer in use.
Because basso continuo, or thorough bass, remained standard practice until the end of the Baroque period, the era is sometimes known as the “age of the thorough bass.”
After being ignored for decades, Baroque music has become increasingly popular over the last fifty years. As part of this new interest, scholars and musicians have spent countless hours trying to figure out how the music might have sounded to 17th and 18th century audiences. While we will never be able to recreate a performance precisely, their work has unearthed several major differences between Baroque and modern ensembles:
pitch: In 1939, modern orchestras agreed to tune to a’=440hz (the note A pitched at 440 cycles per second), which replaced a previously lower pitch (a’=435hz) adopted in 1859. Before 1859, however, there was no pitch standard. The note to which Baroque ensembles tuned, therefore, varied widely at different times and in different places. As a result, the music notated on a score might have sounded as much as a half tone lower than how it would traditionally be performed today. In an effort to allow for this discrepancy, many baroque ensembles adjust their tuning to the repertoire being performed: a’= 415hz for late baroque music, a’=392hz for French music, a’=440hz for early Italian music and a’=430hz for classical repertoire.
timbre: While most of the instruments in a baroque ensemble are familiar, there are several prominent members no longer featured in modern ensembles. The harpsichord was the primary keyboard instrument (and an important member of the continuo group), and instruments important in the 16th and 17th centuries like the luteand viol, still continued to be used. Variations in instruments still popular today also gave the baroque ensemble a different sound. String instruments like the violin, viola and cello used gut strings rather than the strings wrapped in metal with which they are strung today, for example, giving them a mellower, sweeter tone.performance technique: A baroque score contains little (if any) information about elements like articulation, ornamentation or dynamics, and so modern ensembles need to make their own informed choices before each performance. Mechanical differences between baroque and modern instruments also suggest that the older instruments would have sounded differently, so ensembles like Music of the Baroque often adjust their technique to allow for this. Because baroque and modern bows are structurally different, for example, string players using modern bows often use a gentler attack on the string and crescendos and diminuendos on longer notes. 17th and 18th century performance treatises also imply that finger vibrato (a technique in which a string player rocks his or her fingertip on the string to enrich the tone) was used sparingly for expressive moments, while bow vibrato (an undulating movement of the bow) was generally preferred.
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